Last Thursday evening was a pleasant one. It was mild and welcoming, a good night for a drive to Wilmington. I had been by the University of North Carolina campus there, but hadn’t yet been to visit. I’ve been meaning to head down there to look around for a while now, as that’s where I intend to finish my Bachelor’s degree in Biology. The reason for this trip was mildly ironic given my intentions, as my son James and I were headed there to hear an anti-science advocate speak.
Dr. Michael Behe is a biochemist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He’s also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a well known creationist think tank whose purpose is to disguise religious doctrine as science in order to avoid the Constitutional ban on promoting religion in public schools. It was Behe that we were heading down to see.
Along the hour and a half drive, I gave my son the highlights of the full history of the Intelligent Design Creationism Hoax, parts of which he’s heard before. (Bear in mind here that I was driving, and not working from notes. I’ll be filling in details as I go that he didn’t get during our conversation.) I began with some background on the history of scientific discoveries in biology since Linnaeus. Carolus Linnaeus was Swedish doctor, a botanist, and a zoologist, who set about categorizing life’s varied forms in his long-evolving work, “Systema Naturae”, first published in 1735.
I touched on William Paley’s rehashing of Cicero’s water clock, and the the obvious logical flaw contained therein. In On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero’s character Balbus, a fictional follower of Plato, posited that because a sundial or a water clock has an obvious purpose, we can then infer that it was designed by some intelligence. Balbus went on to argue that because of the complexity of nature, we can therefore infer that the universe is also designed by some intelligence. Balbus concluded that the universe itself was divine, or possibly that the universe had a divine spirit, a sort of mono/pantheism (Collins 187 – 193). Paley bastardized the assertion in 1802, altering the water clock to a watch, and the deity in question to the Christian god (Paley 5 – 13). He failed however to remove the glaring logical flaw that we only perceive complexity in contrast to simplicity, the watch on the background of the heath. One cannot then use the complexity of the watch to argue for the complexity of the heath without undermining the original argument that the watch is itself complex and inherently different from the heath. This was important for what was to come, and I was later quite glad I had taken the time (we had plenty on the ride) to discuss it with James.
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James and I then moved on to discuss Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, wherein he lays out the case for common descent and natural selection, the two overarching principles of evolution. While James is familiar with the concepts, we concentrated more on the historical context, most especially the rise of Christian fundamentalism.1 Darwin sailed aboard the HMS Beagle from 1831 until 1836, spending five years conducting a survey of the waters around South America. We touched on the Galapagos Islands, the now famous finches, and how important Darwin’s observations were to become to Biology. It was years before Darwin would publish his insights in Origin (in 1859), but when he did they were seen by the emerging fundamentalist movement as a direct challenge to their doctrine of biblical literalism. Indeed, how could they not? What was to become the Theory of Evolution was direct evidence of a very ancient earth, much more ancient than any reading of the Bible could account for.
Nevertheless the evidence began to pour in, each piece fitting into the last like an immensely complex puzzle, one in which the overall picture was one of a gloriously majestic universe without need of or regard to Bronze Age mythology. Each scientific discovery was a nail in the coffin of this religious superstition. We talked about Gregor Mendel and the inheritance patterns in pea plants and James Watson and Francis Crick and the discovery of DNA.
And then we talked about John Scopes. Because the biblical literalist notion was losing ground at every turn on the scientific front, proponents resorted to a defensive legislative posture. By gaining control of state legislatures, they were able to stall the teaching of science by outlawing it. Academic Freedom has never been a friend of religious extremists, despite their current disingenuous usurpation of the phrase. John Scopes was a Science teacher in Dayton Tennessee when he was charged in 1925 with the crime of teaching evolution in violation of state law. He was convicted and fined $100, though the case was thrown out later on procedural grounds. James was horrified at the very idea of a Science teacher getting in trouble for teaching science.
The Tennessee law served as a model for further anti-science attacks in the United States, led by Christian fundamentalists who had growing power throughout the twentieth century. It was only in 1968, when the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision in the Epperson v. Arkansas case, that the unconstitutionality of such laws was finally turned right. Susan Epperson successfully challenged a similar Arkansas law on the grounds that it was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The decision was reversed at the Arkansas Supreme Court, but that reversal was then overturned by the federal Supremes (Epperson v. Arkansas).
It was because of the Epperson decision that creationists changed their tactic to one of demanding by law equal time for creationism and science. In 1975, back in Tennessee, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this also unconstitutional on the same grounds (Daniel v. Waters). Creationists had been dealt another setback, but they were not finished. Their next move was to remove all references to the book of Genesis, and supply themselves with a brand new name: Creation Science.
The state school board of Arkansas was up to bat again in 1981 with its own equal time law, but in January of 1982 the District Court ruled that changing the name didn’t make the notion of creationism any more scientific (McLean v. Arkansas). That case was a foreshadowing of the Supreme Court decision a few years later in Edwards v. Aguillard. The opinion in Edwards applied the Lemon test, wherein a law must pass a three pronged test to not be in violation of the Establishment Clause. Briefly stated, the government’s action must have a legitimate secular purpose, must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and must not result in an “excessive entanglement” of the government and religion (Lemon v. Kurtzman). It was clear that neither creationism nor Creation Science would ever pass muster. It was time for another name change.
By this point my son was livid at the dishonesty of the creationists, but there was more to come. At the time of the Edwards decision, a Christian Fundamentalist group called the Foundation for Thought and Ethics had been working on a high school targeted text book, ostensibly about Biology but in reality a Creation Science fakery entitled Biology and Origins. In response to Edwards the text was search/replaced, replacing each instance of “Creationism” with the new moniker “Intelligent Design”, “Creationist” with “design proponent”, and “God” with “Intelligent Designer”. The text got a shiny new title, Of Pandas and People. Unfortunately for Dr. Behe, who wrote the chapter on blood clotting, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics is as incompetent as it is dishonest and this would come to haunt him in federal court eighteen years later.
Thus enters the Discovery Institute and the star of our show, Michael Behe. The Discovery Institute is a Seattle based think tank with major funding from Howard Ahmanson Jr., a well known Dominionist who unabashedly and unashamedly told the Orange County (CA) Register, “My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives.” The institute’s own goals were laid out in a fund-raising document that was leaked to the public in 1999. “The Wedge”, as they named it, sets forth the following goals: “To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies” and “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”. It proposes to achieve these overtly religious goals in three phases, “Scientific Research, Writing & Publicity”, “Publicity & Opinion-making”, and “Cultural Confrontation & Renewal” (Discovery Institute, “The Wedge”). Clearly, this is not how scientific organizations go about their usual business, but if there were some research being done those results should stand or fall on their own merit. Behe was brought on board ostensibly to get the research ball rolling.
Rather than heading for the lab however, Behe headed for the word processor. In 1996, rather than publishing research in a peer-reviewed science journal, Behe wrote Darwin’s Black Box, a book where he introduces the concept of ‘Irreducible Complexity’. Irreducible Complexity is the notion that “A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” In DBB, he posits that the cilium and bacterial flagellum, the immune system, vesicular transport, and the blood clotting cascade are so complex that they could not possibly have evolved. Without any actual empirical support, let alone peer-review (though Behe claimed otherwise as we shall see later), Darwin’s Black Box was universally panned by the scientific community. Irreducible Complexity is an argument from personal incredulity, if a fancy one. It boils down to ‘I can’t imagine how that could have evolved, therefore it was created by the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God’. James immediately picked up on the leap of logic here, asking how Behe knew it wasn’t a different god that did the designing. Sadly, not everyone catches that little bait and switch routine.
Stepping away from the conversation with my son for a bit, there is a bit more history that is relevant here. In the following years, the Intelligent Design Creationism movement published no relevant science in peer reviewed journals. While Behe teamed up with University of Pittsburgh Physics professor David Snoke to publish one paper in Protein Science (Behe and Snoke, “Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues”), the paper was rebutted and debunked thoroughly by Michael Lynch, Distinguished Professor of Evolution, Population Genetics, and Genomics at Indiana University. Indeed, as Lynch points out, Behe and Snoke merely present a strawman which they proceed to burn in effigy.
“Before proceeding, a fundamental flaw in the argument of Behe and Snoke needs to be pointed out. Although the authors claim to be evaluating whether Darwinian processes are capable of yielding new multiresidue functions, the model that they present is non-Darwinian (King and Jukes 1969). Contrary to the principles espoused by Darwin, that is, that evolution generally proceeds via functional intermediate states, Behe and Snoke consider a situation in which the intermediate steps to a new protein are neutral and involve nonfunctional products. Although non-Darwinian mechanisms play an important role in contemporary evolutionary biology, there is no logical basis to the authors’ claim that observations from a non-Darwinian model provide a test of the feasibility of Darwinian processes. Moreover, given that the authors restricted their attention to one of the most difficult pathways to an adaptive product imaginable, it comes as no surprise that their efforts did not bear much fruit.” (Lynch 2217)
In the same issue, Behe and Snokes issue a half-hearted rebuttal to Lynch, admitting that their paper does nothing to “disprove Darwinism”and is restricted to one small result that is irrelevant to the real world.
“Our paper (Behe and Snoke 2004) contains one simple result. When reasonable parameters are used with our model to estimate actual time scales or population sizes for the evolution of multi-residue (MR) protein features, they are unrealistically large. This implies that the model we chose, which is restricted to point mutations and assumes intermediate states to be deleterious, isn’t a plausible evolutionary pathway. One must therefore look about for a new model. We did not rule out such a possibility; in our original article, we explicitly stated, ‘we should look to more complicated pathways, perhaps involving insertion, deletion, recombination, selection of intermediate states, or other mechanisms, to account for most MR protein features.’” (Behe and Snoke, “A response to Michael Lynch” 2226)
This did not stop Behe and his comrades from later claiming that they had finally published support for Intelligent Design Creationism in a peer reviewed journal, however. To this day, the Discovery Institute website lists both Darwin’s Black Box as well as this paper as peer reviewed support for their movement (Discovery Institute “Peer-Reviewed & Peer-Edited Scientific Publications Supporting the Theory of Intelligent Design (Annotated)”).
This morning (1 March 2009) I emailed a question in to Massimo Pigliucci, professor of Ecology and Evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, while he was being interviewed on the radio. I asked Professor Pigliucci to comment on Behe and Snoke’s paper in Protein Science in 2004 which they claimed ex post facto supported Intelligent Design Creationism. He replied on air:
“Right, so there are a couple of examples of that. Behe’s paper is one and then there was another one that came out two or three years ago in a journal published by the local academy of sciences in Washington. The problem with those papers is that they tend to be perfectly fine scientific papers addressing perfectly fine topics and Michael Behe is a reputable scientist in his own field. He’s published technical papers in protein biology and things and so on and so forth. And then they stick in these very ambiguous statements inside the paper, usually in the discussion section which is devoted normally to speculation about why did you get certain results and what the results mean. And from time to time, because the peer review process is not a perfect process, it is only done by two or three reviewers at a time, these statements do sneak in and get published. And of course as soon as they get published they get one of those hits, then immediately the Discovery Institute puts them on their web pages and says, ‘see? Here we have an example of peer reviewed publication.’
“But notice that that particular paper by Behe is not at all about the evolution of proteins. It is about, it’s a structural biological paper, it’s about structural biology. It’s about how proteins are actually made inside living organisms. It had nothing to do with evolution. There is no evolutionary context. There is no comparison to other, of a variety of species, say to begin to address how that particular protein might have evolved, how that function might have evolved. So he actually does not address at all the problem.
“It makes the same exact argument that he has made with the bacterial flagellum, which is ‘Oh, it’s so complex that I can’t see how it could have possibly have evolved.’ Well just because Michael Behe can’t see it, or even a couple of reviewers can’t see it, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
“The best example again is in fact the bacterial flagellum. Behe has been claiming for a long time that this is a complex structure that is made up by dozens of different proteins that just have to be in place in order for the whole thing to work, which he calls Irreducible Complexity. And he claims that because all those proteins have to be in place simultaneously, then there is no way that evolution could have possibly produced that structure by natural means. Except – that biologists have actually shown that there are other versions around of the bacterial flagellum and of the proteins that assemble in the bacterial flagellum. Some of these versions are not flagella at all. They’re used, they’re different structures but they’re closely related structures that are made up of a subset of the same proteins and they do different things.
“For instance, one of these structures is used by some bacteria to inject their DNA in another cell. So they are pumps. Well it turns out that in order to make a flagellum, you need that kind of same function, you need a pump gun of some function. So we have now an example of a structure that is different but it’s related, it’s made of a subset of the same proteins as the bacterial flagellum. This is exactly what evolutionary theory would predict. Evolution works by adding things on pre-existing structure and at some point by changing the function of the new structure.
“That kind of observation makes no sense in light of an Irreducible Complexity claim because we’ve just shown, contra to what Behe says, that there is in fact a simplified version of the flagellum, it is made of fewer proteins, and it has a different biological function- exactly what evolutionary theory predicts.” (Pigliucci)
Meanwhile, in 2003 Yong Jiang and Russel Doolittle published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that discussed the blood clotting system of puffer fish, Fugu rubripes (Jiang and Doolittle). What’s relevant about that paper is that the puffer fish sports a blood clotting system much like ours, but with a few pieces missing. That’s critical in this context in that Behe’s definition of Irreducible Complexity, which he applied specifically to the blood clotting system, holds that if all the parts were not in place the system would cease to function. (Although Behe would later move the goalposts to say that the system wouldn’t function as it had with all its parts, it is important to note that the blood clotting system of F. rubripes still falsifies even that assertion.) Similarly, each of the systems that Behe claimed were Irreducibly Complex was shown to have a perfectly plausible evolutionary pathway. Since his definition is that such systems could not possibly have evolved, it is not even necessary to demonstrate an actual pathway, only a possible one. Irreducible Complexity was a nearly stillborn concept, having been refuted almost as soon as it was proposed.
Michael Behe is nothing if not stubborn. He tenaciously held to his discredited notions, all the while doing not one bit of research to support them. In 2005, under oath in federal court, Behe admitted while being questioned by plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Rothschild that he had not published any peer reviewed science supporting Intelligent Design. Though my son got the highlights of the trial, including Behe’s admission under oath that Intelligent Design can only be considered science if Astrology is also considered science, here I’m going to pull directly from the trial transcripts a bit.
“Q. Let’s go on to immune system. That’s another biochemical system that you argued in Darwin’s Black Box and you argue in your testimony is irreducibly complex, is that correct?
Q. And I’m correct in understanding that you have not written any peer reviewed articles in scientific journals arguing that the immune system is in fact irreducibly complex?
A. No. My argument is in my book, that’s right.
Q. And nobody else has written any articles in peer reviewed scientific journals arguing that the immune system is irreducibly complex?
A. Nobody has used those terms, but there are articles which speak of the requirement for multiple parts.
Q. They discuss what the immune system is comprised of?
A. Yes, in terms of it needing different several different parts.
Q. But those are not articles that argue for the irreducible complexity of or do not argue that the immune system can’t evolve because it is irreducibly complex?
A. No, they don’t argue that.
Q. Similarly you have not written any articles in peer reviewed scientific journals arguing that the immune system is intelligently designed?
A. Yes. Similarly that argument is in my book, so no, I didn’t do it in peer reviewed articles.
Q. And nobody else has either?
Further along in the testimony of that same afternoon, Behe again put forth the assertion, as he claimed to have done in his paper in Protein Science, that Irreducibly Complex systems could not possibly have evolved, and that there was no published science detailing the evolution of the immune system in particular. Rothschild however, presented him with over 50 peer-reviewed papers and books detailing such evolution of the immune system. Behe waved them away, saying he didn’t need to read them to know that they did not adequately describe the evolution of the immune system. It’s interesting that Behe found it appropriate to dismiss such a mountain of evidence as was laid before him on the witness stand without ever having read it, but what he said next would assure his place in infamy.
Behe asserted on the stand that it was not his job to support his claims with evidence, but rather his critics’ responsibility to debunk his claims to his satisfaction.
“Q. Again at the same time you don’t publish any peer reviewed articles advocating for the alternative, intelligent design?
A. I have published a book, or — I have published a book discussing my ideas.
Q. That’s Darwin’s Black Box, correct?
A. That’s the one, yes.
Q. And you also propose tests such as the one we saw in “Reply to My Critics” about how those Darwinians can test your proposition?
Q. But you don’t do those tests?
A. Well, I think someone who thought an idea was incorrect such as intelligent design would be motivated to try to falsify that, and certainly there have been several people who have tried to do exactly that, and I myself would prefer to spend time in what I would consider to be more fruitful endeavors.
Q. Professor Behe, isn’t it the case that scientists often propose hypotheses, and then set out to test them themselves rather than trusting the people who don’t agree with their hypothesis?
A. That’s true, but hypothesis of design is tested in a way that is different from a Darwinian hypotheses. The test has to be specific to the hypothesis itself, and as I have argued, an inductive hypothesis is argued or is supported by induction, by example after example of things we see that fit this induction.” (Kitzmiller v. Dover trial transcript, Day 12, PM)2
This is nonsensical, of course. It is not the job of the scientific community at large to spend valuable time and money debunking every half-baked idea that meanders down the pike. In the fields of science, if one has an idea that has merit, it is up to the originator of the idea to do the research to support it.
It was at this point that we arrived, and with the highlights of this background information in hand my son accompanied me into Beckwith Recital Hall in the Cultural Arts building at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington to hear Michael Behe speak. I’m writing a separate article for Behe’s lecture itself, coming soon.
1Let me just say that as presented here and to my son at the time, some of this is historically inaccurate. If I may quote someone who looked over this article while I worked on it, “”The Fundamentals” were not written until the 1900s, and were in fact not hostile to evolutionary theory. Also, an ancient earth was generally accepted by the clergy. The initial opposition was to the obvious implication that humans had not been directly created by God.”
Further, he told me, “Augustine wrote about the literal interpretation of Genesis in the 5th century, Aquinas in the 13th century. The 6 day, 6000 years old creationist notion was proposed by Calvinist Bishop James Ussher in the 1600s. A good history I recommend is Ronald L. Numbers, 2006 “The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism” Berkeley: University of California Press.”
2Line breaks and line numbers removed from official transcript for legibility.
Behe, Michael J. and David W. Snoke. “Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues”. Protein Science 13.10 (2004): 2651-2664. 28 Feb. 2009
Behe, Michael J. “Answering Objections to the Argument for Intelligent Design in Biology”. Lecture. Cultural Arts Building Beckwith Recital Hall, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, NC. 26 Feb. 2009.
Daniel v. Waters. 515 U.S. F.2d 485 (6th Cir. 1975). 28 Feb. 2009
Edwards v. Aguillard. 482 U.S. 578 (1987). 28 Feb. 2009
Epperson v. Arkansas. 393 U.S. 97 (1968). 28 Feb. 2009
Jiang, Yong, and Russell F. Doolittle. “The evolution of vertebrate blood coagulation as viewed from a comparison of puffer fish and sea squirt genomes”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100.13 (2003): 7527 – 7532. 28 Feb. 2009
Kitzmiller v. Dover. U.S. 4:04-cv-02688-JEJ (2005). 28 Feb. 2009
Lemon v. Kurtzman. 403 U.S. 602 (1971). 403 U.S. 602. 3 Mar. 2009
McLean v. Arkansas. 529 F. Supp. 1255, 1258-1264 (ED Ark. 1982)
Paley, William. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the existence and attributes of the deity collected from the appearance of nature (unknown edition number). Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1853. 27 Feb. 2009
Pigliucci, Massimo. “The Difference Between Science and Bunk: Massimo Pigliucci on Atheists Talk #0059”. Interview. Atheists Talk, AM 950 KTNF Air America Minnesota. 1 Mar. 2009
Scopes v. State. 154 Tenn. 105, 289 S.W. 363 (1927).